The Florida Panthers are looking to finish their improbable playoff run with their first ever Stanley Cup. They'll be tested against the Vegas Golden Knights, the best team in the Western Conference, but Florida does have a couple paths to victory.
First and foremost, Matthew Tkachuk is on the kind of run they make documentaries about. His late-game and overtime heroics are already the stuff of legends, and I would only expect him to keep elevating his game with the Cup just four wins away. We'll talk about him more shortly.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky also provides the Panthers with a lot of hope. He's been the best netminder in the playoffs, and he has the ability to erase whatever advantages the Golden Knights might have in this series.
Finally, the special teams battle will be critical, as it usually is at this time of year. The Panthers' power play might feast upon a lackluster Golden Knights penalty kill in this series. If Florida can flip a game or two with special teams, it will be in good shape.
Let's dive into the three biggest reasons why the Panthers can defeat the Golden Knights and be crowned Stanley Cup champions.
Matthew Tkachuk's will and skill
Things like willpower, grit, and tenacity can't really be quantified, but they are absolutely necessary to win a Stanley Cup. Tkachuk has an ample amount of all three, and he just happens to be one of the most talented players in the world, too.
Tkachuk has willed the Panthers to victory this season, and that has only been amplified in the playoffs. Whenever Florida has been locked in a tight game, Tkachuk has usually been the one to get the job done.
His overtime goal in Game 5 against Boston kept the Panthers' season alive. He gave Florida a 2-0 series lead over Carolina with back-to-back overtime goals in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final. With 4.3 seconds remaining in Game 4, Tkachukto send the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final.
On top of the late-game heroics, Tkachuk has been a major thorn in the side of every opponent Florida has faced to this point. He doesn't shy away from contact, and he seems to find his way into the middle of every scrum between the whistles. All the while, Tkachuk is producing on the scoresheet, and he leads the Panthers in goals (9), assists (12) and points (21).
Tkachuk is a one-of-a-kind player, and he is doing something special in the 2023 NHL Playoffs. The Golden Knights don't have a player on par with Tkachuk (yes, even Jack Eichel is not). He is the best weapon the Panthers have in their pursuit of the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Elite goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky
Over the past couple of years, Sergei Bobrovsky hasn't quite lived up to his $10 million price tag. He has been worth that and more in this postseason, though.
Bobrovsky has stolen multiple games for the Panthers, and if he can maintain that level of play, the Golden Knights will be hard pressed to win four games. Alex Lyon began the postseason as the Panthers' starting goaltender, but Bobrovsky took over in Game 4 against the Boston Bruins, and he hasn't come close to relinquishing that role.
- Bobrovsky leads all playoff goalies with 14.5 goals saved above average, according to Natural Stat Trick.
- He has also stopped 86.4% of the high-danger shots he has faced, which ranks in the top five.
- Bobrovsky has stolen numerous games for the Panthers in this postseason, and he was nearly perfect in the Eastern Conference Final. In his four starts against the Hurricanes, Bobrovsky posted 6.70 goals saved above average and a .966 save percentage.
Florida swept the series, but Carolina regularly outshot and out-chanced the Panthers. If not for Bobrovsky, the Panthers would have been locked in a much tighter battle.
Bobrovsky will face a major test against a Golden Knights team that just torched Jake Oettiger, one of the best young goaltenders in the league, but he has stood tall throughout the first three rounds. There's no indication that Bobrovsky's stellar run will stop anytime soon.
Special teams advantage
At five-on-five, the Golden Knights have been the better team this postseason. Florida can cancel out that advantage by capitalizing on special teams scenarios.
The Panthers' power play has been operating at a 27.9% clip in the postseason, and Tkachuk has done a lot of damage on the man advantage. His nine power play points are tied for fifth in the playoffs, and Sam Reinhart has chipped in with three power play tallies of his own.
Florida's strong power play unit will be going up against a Vegas penalty kill that has been one of the worst in the playoffs. The Golden Knights have killed off just 63.0% of their opponents' power plays, which ranks 14th out of 16 teams. That's the kind of matchup that can flip a close series in the Panthers' favor.
The Panthers' penalty kill hasn't necessarily been elite by any stretch. They have only thwarted 71.2% of the power plays they have faced, but we'll see whether the Golden Knights are able to take advantage of that. Vegas has scored on 18.5% of its power plays, which ranks ninth, but four of the seven teams below them were eliminated in the first round. The Golden Knights haven't been able to make their opposition pay for taking penalties.
That's good news for Florida, the most penalized team in the playoffs.
This series should be fairly even at five-on-five, with the Golden Knights having the smallest of edges in that department. The Panthers should be able to balance the scales with a decent effort from its power play. In a seven-game series, special teams could tilt the scales just enough for Florida to win it all.